Welcome to the News section of the iNSiGHT Ornithology website (
www.simoncherriman.com). This blog contains updates about various things I've been up to, interesting environmental issues and observations I make regularly while going about my day. It is designed to be fun AND educational, and inspire you about our wonderful natural world. Happy reading!

Monday, 3 December 2012

Not Easy to Fly a Kite

Ticks crawled up the inside of my trousers as I waded through scratching vegetation, and the air was thick with humidity. Strong wind gusts tore through the scrub but I still managed to hear my mobile phone ringing. I answered it.
“Is that Simon? Hi, it’s Marra here, how are you?
G’day Marra! I’m great thanks, what’s happening?
I’ve got a baby Square-tailed Kite that was found near Forrestfield yesterday. It’s very near fledging but can’t fly. Just wondering if you’re available to go and search for a nest? Would probably involve some tree-climbing!”
Not many things are more exciting to me than climbing a tree to rescue one of our most unique and beautiful birds of prey (raptors). I accepted the offer at once and agreed to call Marra Apgar, one of Perth’s most dedicated wildlife rehabilitators and manager of the education business ‘Raptor Presentations’, for more information when I returned home the next day. The field trip I was on was nearly over but already I had something else to look forward to. A mission away from the ticks and humidity, but one that would prove just as challenging.
Marra informed me that the orphaned bird had been found by some ladies walking their dogs in a regional park in the Perth foothills. I arranged to meet them on one of their routine mornings so they could show me where it had been found, and hopefully allow me to find a nest. According to Marra’s assessment, the kite was well developed but incapable of flying, so must have accidentally parachuted off its nest. Probably an easy mistake in the recent strong winds.
It was a grey morning when I met Caroline and Chris the next day, and we headed up a bush track through fields of low heath adorning the foothills, with Chris’s two dogs panting and showing us the way. The vegetation was mostly too low for raptor nests, but I noticed the occasional small red-gum growing by the track became taller and more frequent as we headed higher up the hill. This is looking more like kite-nesting country, I thought.
The ladies reached the spot where they remembered finding the young bird, who I’d heard so much about but not yet had the privilege of meeting. We stopped at a dip in the trail where a well-wooded gully sliced its way into the underlying bedrock, another highly suitable place for a nest site. Despite searching for about 20 minutes, and inspecting with my binoculars the crown of all the nearby large trees, there was no nest to be seen.
After some discussion and a quick phone-call to Marra to confirm that the bird was indeed a Square-tailed Kite (I had seen a possible tree hollow suitable for Kestrels), we carried on up the path. Another few hundred metres on and one of the ladies stopped.
“Hang on. Maybe this is where we found the chick!?”
With that I glanced skyward and an adult Square-tailed Kite flew right overhead, skimming the tree line in graceful fashion.
“There!” I yelled. “There’s an adult kite. We must be close to a nest now!”
Looking in the direction the kite had appeared from, I instantly noticed a large stick nest built in some leafy foliage of a tall red-gum.
“There’s the nest! Fantastic!” We all hopped around like excited children waiting for an ice-cream.
I rushed round one side of the tree and checked the nest repeatedly with my binoculars. The wind roared over my eardrums and sent the nest tree’s canopy rippling with air currents like a ship’s mast in a gale. The nest was very high but I could just make out the shape of another bird, flattening itself onto the platform to bunker down from each strong gust. It looked like a second fully-feathered kite chick and gave me hope I had a good chance of returning ‘our’ chick successfully.
The incredibly windy conditions prevented me from even considering tree climbing today, so Caroline, Chris, Marra and I arranged to meet on Sunday when the weather forecast looked more favourable. In the meantime ‘our’ chick, which had now been dubbed ‘Squrt’ (short for ‘SQUaRe-Tailed Kite’), would stay in Marra’s safe keeping. Although young birds of prey are known to imprint on humans when brought into captivity (i.e. by relying on a human to feed and nurture them, they grow up thinking they are human, becoming destined to a life in an aviary), larger nestlings which have passed the imprinting period can remain in human care for several days and still be returned to the wild with little impact on their psyche.
Sunday arrived quickly and, with Mum and Gill in tow, I arrived at Marra’s place early to finally meet Squrt in the flesh. She (we were uncertain whether she really was a she or not!) sat quietly in her aviary with her head cocked to one side as Marra and I talked quietly, then opened the cage for me to get some footage of her up close. I was amazed at the calm nature of the bird and instantly took a liking to her. I couldn’t wait to get her back to her nest.

We drove up to the foothills and eagerly piled out of the car with cameras, backpacks full of climbing gear, the pet-pack containing Squrt and a whole bunch of enthusiasm, and set of along the walk trail. It wasn’t long before we arrived at the ‘nest tree’ and were greeted by Chris (Caroline had had to leave for work before we arrived). As Marra shared information about Squrt and gave the others updates on her condition, I wasted no time in unpacking my tree-scaling equipment and setting up ropes to the nest.
Just before I was ready to ascend the tree, some movement caught my eye and I noticed a Little Eagle tucking its wings up, having just landed on a main branch above the kite nest. I alerted the others and we all watched it preen briefly then look down to the nest, then back at us. It was very suspicious that one species of raptor would land so close to the active nest of another, unless of course it was hungry. From my position near the base of the tree, the nest appeared empty. No sign of the kite chick I’d seen a few days before. My mind raced. What was going on here?

I knew the only way to find out was to get up to the nest, so I quickly grabbed a camera and began scaling the rope. As I got higher, the Little Eagle promptly launched from its perch and glided away across the valley. Soon I was just below the nest platform. A gentle breeze ruffled the leaves around me. I secured a safety line around a thick limb, then pulled myself right up to the nest. There before me was an amazing sight. An incredible spectacle of nature…

The Little Eagle chick was only days old. It was tiny, not much bigger than the palm of my hand, and covered in a fine, smoky-grey natal down. Tiny whispers filled my ears as it called softly next to my head, probably thinking I was a parent bird. The small cup in the centre of the nest, lined sparsely with Eucalypt leaves, was only just big enough to cradle this little being’s body. What a sight! I pulled away from the nest and lowered myself into a sitting position in my harness.

“There’s a Little Eagle chick up here. The nest isn’t a kite’s after all. This one belongs to Little Eagles. We’re back to square one again!”
The others muttered a few words in surprise from down below. I heard Chris asking Marra questions, and the explanation that followed. If we couldn’t find a nest to return the kite to, it would have to remain in captivity. A life in prison. I dreaded the thought. Captive birds of prey play a huge role in education, and when an event like this occurs, an opportunity arises for one individual raptor to become an ambassador for its kind. To allow humans to experience at close quarters a bird that most people would never even see. And hopefully to capture children with that magic aura, the mystic glow that birds of prey seem to emit. But for me, seeing a species which is born to soar high on rising air currents restrained by domestication is still depressing. No cage is big enough to house the most powerful of our flying birds.
The figure-eight warmed my fingers, hot after my rapid descent down the static abseiling rope. I unclipped myself and walked over to the others.
“What should we do now hey? It’s a bit of a mystery where this bird has come from.” I stared at Squrt who sat on the soft blanket placed next to her pet pack. Her head tilted to one side as though she was waiting for an answer.

“I am still sure where we found her was back down the track. Where we first looked the other day,” Chris said convincingly. Maybe I’d missed something. Gill, Chris and I headed back to the place I’d first looked for a nest, while Marra and Mum waited with Squrt.
Nearly an hour of thoroughly nest-searching the gully still brought us no luck. It was beginning to heat up and Marra was concerned to get Squrt back to her place for a feed. Chris had had to leave. Mum waved her hands at the flies. I wiped sweat from my brow. After a morning which began with so much enthusiastic energy, we were now all feeling quite dejected.
Marra placed Squrt into her pet-pack and began walking back to the car. A head start with the awkward cage would be useful. I still had quite a bit of climbing gear to pack up, so Gill took my camera back-pack and tripod then went on ahead with Mum as I gathered the last of my ropes. I heaved the heavy pack onto my shoulders and plodded up the trail. A slight rise in the landscape took the track out of the thicker vegetation and into an open section of Wandoo trees. It was dead still now and quite warm. Nearing the top of the hill, I glanced upward at the path ahead. A large Wandoo overhanging the track stood out, reaching toward the light offered by a window in the canopy. And there, in a large fork on the lowest horizontal limb, sat an adult Square-tailed Kite with its large chick on a bulky mass of sticks. At last! A kite nest. The right nest!
I burst into action and raced toward the tree, calling to Mum and Gill who had just disappeared around the corner. Some faint replies came and soon they were back again.
“MARRA! Where’s Marra? Tell her I’ve found the nest!” I dumped my bag and ran on ahead to catch up with Marra, who fortunately hadn’t yet made it back to the car. She was thrilled to hear the news and followed me excitedly as I pointed in the direction of the kites’ nest.
The kite nest is just visible at the top centre of this photograph, with me ascending from the bottom.
It wasn’t long before I had a rope set up just above the nest and began ascending the tree. The nest was quite a long way out on the limb, precariously balanced, not the easiest thing to access. Looking from below, the adult kite’s head was just visible through the sticks, and seeing as most raptors flush before you even reach the nest tree, I was surprised she was still there. I drew level and secured a second safety line, then glanced toward the nest, the female kite raising her wings slightly as I prepared to go out on a limb. The moment was here. It was finally time to send Squrt home.
My hand quivered as I reached into the Woolworth’s ‘green bag’ and clasped my fingers around Squrt’s back. The young kite was quite large, but huddled up, its torso easily fitted into my palm. My other arm locked around a thin branch, helping my body balance on the horizontal limb. I ignored the 10 metre drop below me and focused on removing the bird from its cradle, slowly but surely. Its talons caught on the fine material of the bag’s rim and remained hooked for a few seconds, but I managed to free them and lift the kite into the open.

Marra places Squrt into a green bag, ready for her release.
Photographing the kite family up close!

Just a metre away, perched at one edge of the large stick nest, sat another chick, virtually identical looking to Squrt. And opposite it, the fine hooked bill, pale head and glorious red-brown markings of an adult Square-tailed Kite, curiously watching my every move.
I nervously leaned forward, still clutching the baby bird in one hand, clinging to the tree with the other, and after a long stretch, placed it back in the centre of the nest. Its sibling reacted by raising its crest feathers and gaping, the classic threat posture adopted by many birds of prey when humans are close to their nest. The adult watched its offspring flop clumsily forward into the nest cavity, then seconds later shuffled closer to it and looked down as if to say ‘where the hell have you been!?’ The whole world was quiet and all I could focus on was these incredible birds sat before me, not just the chicks but their parent, who to my disbelief had remained on the nest this whole time. What a wonderful, placid bird. Minutes passed, I heard muffled voices below, but nothing could break the space I was in, captivated by natural history.

Leaving the tree was like trying to prize myself from some powerful magnetic force which kept me glued to the scene like an invisible magnet. But eventually my legs were numb and an aching back forced me to retract myself from the nest. It was time to get down.
*       *       *       *       * 
Twenty-four hours later I returned to find both kite chicks still on their nest. The amazingly placid adult female also remained there, and once again she accepted me into her space. I nearly fell out of the tree when she walked slowly to the edge of the nest, reach out with her beak and touched my hand gently. I took more photos, then later that day broke the fantastic news to Marra, who informed me that the chicks both had a bulging crop, a sure sign that they had been well fed since Squrt’s reunion. All the signs were good for both chicks to fledge successfully. What an awesome outcome!
Being involved in this kite story was a simply amazing experience. The image of that beautiful female kite drifts into my mind often, an image I will remember forever.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome mate! Love the pic of the 3 of them together in the nest